The Acquisitions Process

Three top editors explain the process of commissioning books within their publishers.

Hugh Barker, Publishing Director, Michael O’ Mara Books

There are a variety of ways in which a proposal might come to our attention. Firstly, we might simply come up with an idea and ask a writer if they would be interested in writing it for us – a lot of our books at Michael O’Mara Books have traditionally been generated this way, and across the publishing business it is a reasonably common model. So for writers it is worth bearing in mind that simply being in touch with publishers and being willing to work on such ideas can lead to commissions.

On the other hand, let’s look at what happens when you come up with an idea and submit a proposal. A lot of the larger publishers these days only like to look at proposals that come via a literary agent. Personally I have always worked at publishers that don’t take this approach – at Constable & Robinson, my previous company, several of our most successful titles came from the ‘slush pile’, which is the somewhat derogatory name publishers give to unagented submissions. At publishers who are prepared to take these, there will often be someone whose job it is to take a quick look at these submissions and decide which to pass on to an editor (Sammy Looker’s Something Nasty in the Slushpile is an amusing and informative guide to the pitfalls of doing this).

It is however, obviously likely to be more effective if you can research the market and work out which editors and which companies publish the sort of title you are submitting. Firstly, this cuts out the middle man and secondly, it avoids the waste of time of sending a lovely young adult novel to an editor or company who don’t publish fiction in the first place. That may sound patronizing, but it is a common mistake and can lead to wasted energy when trying to find a publisher.

Once a proposal lands on the desk of an appropriate editor, what happens next? Firstly, bear in mind that we may be seeing tens or hundreds of proposals a week so it is inevitable that the very first reaction is a fairly instant one. I need to decide if a title is worth my time and detailed attention – it is commonly said that in bookshops, a customer makes a decision on whether to buy or peruse a book within about ten seconds of picking it up. When I look at a proposal, I may not make a decision quite that quickly, but I do need to see that it has some potential. That might come from a strong title or clearly expressed idea, or a sense that this is something new and different, or from the proposed book being something that has the potential to stand out in a tried and trusted subject area. Most good book proposals start with something close to the blurb you would find on the back or flap of a book, that tells you instantly what kind of book this is, who it is for, and why it is special.

If a proposal looks to have one of these qualities, the next step will be a more careful read. I may sometimes go back to the author before I circulate the proposal, to ask for modifications or clarification. Once I am happy that is sufficiently clear, I circulate the proposal to the editorial group. This might happen to, at most, one in ten of the ideas I look at, probably less. At most publishers, there is a group that gathers to decide which books to pursue. This is usually a weekly meeting, attended by all the people who will have to work on the book – at our company there will always be someone from UK Sales, someone from Foreign Rights/Sales, the person who works on ebooks, the editorial directors, and someone from the PR and marketing department, as well as the MD and chairman.

What follows is variable. Some books will be so obviously a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ that there is not much discussion. Other times, it will be a process of negotiation. It is often important in a period of decline in the UK book trade that a book has something extra to offer – this might be the potential for large ebook sales, for foreign rights sales, or a strong PR story that suggests we will get good publicity for the book. If there is some doubt over a proposal, one or several of these might tip the decision.

It is also important to remember that while we take each book on its own merits, we are also building a list. There are particular subject areas we are looking to have titles in. We are looking to follow up on our successes (and avoid repeating the mistakes of our failures, of course). And we need to have a fairly constant flow of titles, but can’t get too carried away and publish excessive quantities, as that will overload our sales, publicity and production departments. We are generally planning 12 to 18 months ahead if not further, though occasionally there may also be shorter-term gaps in the list that we are looking to plug. Some of these factors (which are of course beyond the control of the author) may also play a part in the decision.

Finally, once we have decided that we are interested in pursuing a book, we will put together a costing – this is basically a projection of the finances we would expect for a book – the sales departments give us their projections for how many copies they think they can sell. The production department gives us the costs and schedule we can work to. And then based on all this we decide what we can offer for the book and enter into a bidding process, or contract negotiation.

In these days of self-publishing, of course, writers have the option of bypassing this process entirely. I’d argue that publishers still have an important role to play in editing, publicizing and creating strong titles (as well as in taking the upfront financial risk away from the author). But I am also aware that there are many self-publishing success stories. In the end, it is a question of what is the best strategy for a writer to pursue. The process of getting your book through to the right publisher can seem daunting, but I hope it is also clear that we really want to make good books and I’m excited when I’m sent a really strong proposal that I can believe in, whether it comes direct from the author, out of the slush pile or from an agent.

Toby Buchan, Executive Editor, John Blake Publishing Limited

What do editors look for and how do they decide from the scores of submissions? I think the first thing to say is that although publishing is not a black art, it is not a precise science, either. What I look for – I can’t really speak for other editors – and as trite as it may sound, is something that is fresh, interesting, and well written. Other considerations – what else has been published on the subject, how well such a book would fit the list, a writer’s qualifications for the task and, if applicable, track record – follow from that, as do more commercial considerations, from cost of acquiring a project by way of likely market to timing of publication, production and other costs for a given style and format of book. (This is, of course, a considerable over-simplification.) Most of all, one hopes to find something that just makes one think, ‘Yes, we really ought to offer for this.’ It is said that the late Harold Harris of Hutchinson was one of the several publishers who turned down The Day of the Jackal. But it clearly rang a bell somewhere, for he called it back in, and published it, with the result the world knows.

How is the list balanced and how far ahead do you work? Like most publishers, the Blake list is known for publishing in certain areas, celebrity biography and autobiography, sport and true crime probably being the best known. We also publish under the Metro imprint, however, which consists of more general non-fiction, including humour, and have recently started a small and selective children’s list, Dino Books; its first seven titles were published between August and September this year. In theory, we aim to work roughly nine months to a year ahead of publication, but as an independent list, we can work very much faster if we need to, in order to publish in time for a particular event, or to catch a particular trend. As to balance, it is a question of looking at each publishing month, albeit with particular reference to the period between September and November, as well as assigning titles between the John Blake and Metro imprints (projects for Dino Books tend to be self-evident).

How many submissions do you receive each week? Difficult to put a figure on it. For a small(-ish) independent publisher like John Blake, it varies considerably week by week, and not all are actual submissions; some are just ideas submitted by authors (usually) to see whether or not we think a project might be worth taking further. I’d guess at about twenty to thirty a week, but some will have been filtered out as unsuitable from the start without being sent on to editors for further consideration. Good agents and experienced writers fit projects to the list they are approaching; even better ones occasionally think laterally, ‘That just might be the kind of off-the-wall idea that would suit So-and-So’s list.’

How many submissions are then put to the editorial and acquisitions meetings, how many go through and are then accepted? We tend to discuss beforehand, often by e-mail, to see whether there is agreement that a project should go on to the editorial meeting. On average – again, a guess – I would say that about half a dozen new projects are put to each weekly meeting; however, some of these may be editors’ own ideas, rather than those sent in by writers and agents. In some weeks, however, it may be as many as twenty new ideas. Accepted? – possibly one or two a week (again, a guess at an average), although often a decision is taken to look into a project further, sound out trade contacts, look at competing titles, and so on, so it will then come back to a subsequent meeting. It can take a while, as most people know. It is worth remembering that a significant proportion of our new titles are from ideas generated in-house.

What are the contributions of production, rights, marketing, publicity & sales at these meetings? Significant, especially those of sales and publicity – the days when editors could commission titles on their own and then merely inform other departments of what they had contracted, are long gone. Where rights potential is concerned, the chance of selling a serialisation, or one or more editions abroad, may well make the difference between commissioning a project, and declining it. As to production, it is extremely helpful to know at an early stage about any potential costs or problems; for instance, printing a book with four-colour illustrations integrated in the text may mean sending it to the Far East, which adds a minimum six weeks to the schedule, for shipping – this can be crucial when it comes to the need for quick reprints.

Finally, I said above that while I don’t consider publishing to be a black art, it isn’t a precise science, either. Good editors keep a weather eye on what is selling on other lists, as well as on trends in anything from music and television to particular books that have, for whatever reason, seized the public imagination. Good writers and editors do the same – but there is, and always will be, room for that one maverick idea or project that just may light up a commissioning editor and, subsequently, the book trade, the media, and readers. But the sound old military maxim, ‘Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted,’ applies to submissions to publishers; it would be pointless, as well as hopeless, to send an erotic novel to an academic publisher specialising in studies in international relations …

Roland Philipps, Managing Director, John Murray

What we look for is a book with commercial potential, with good enough writing to be on the list. If non-fiction, for a book that will have appeal across a large market (including overseas) and if fiction an entertaining book with good potential in terms of readers, prize shortlistings, book club, and very importantly an author with future books in prospect so that we can help plan a career. We work as far ahead as we can (particularly given that a non-fiction book may take two or more years to complete) but inevitably are much more aware of the spaces on the list for next year, or for the autumn of the year we are in. However, we hope never to fill those slots with a book that would not deserve its place on the list even without budgeting needs. Our current balance between fiction and non-fiction is 50/50 or so, but we are not rigid.

Personally, I probably receive 10-20 submissions each week, which is why I prefer a preliminary enquiry from the agent in question either by telephone or email so that if anything is not suitable for our list I can save time from the off. There are four acquiring editors within JM. We have a small, editorial only meeting once a week where we discuss anything submitted of interest during the week, and which books to take to the full editorial meeting; this gives us time to circulate any material we want read for the key people in the meeting – sales, publicity, rights, marketing – to have a view on at least some of what is being talked about, and to bring up (where relevant) any comparative titles for which we might look at the figures. We take 1-3 projects to the editorial each week. The projects are then presented by the editor, with back-up from colleagues in editorial as well as, we hope, other departments in the meeting. As a result, sales will give numbers later on in the day which can then be argued with or accepted and an offer worked out. Often following a meeting with the author both to make them aware (if they are first-timers) of what is involved in being published as well as to discuss their level of involvement in the promotion.

About article author

Andrew Lownie

Andrew Lownie

Andrew Lownie was born in 1961 and was educated in Britain and America. He read history at Magdalene College, Cambridge where he was President of the Union. He went on to gain an MSc at Edinburgh University and spend a year at the College of Law in London. After a period as a bookseller and jour...More about Andrew Lownie